April 23, 2010

There was a guest piece in the Times business section years ago, and it was about the ethical problem presented by a CEO or manager who set unreasonable goals and said, "Don't bother me with the details, just get it done." The author said that was an inherently immoral position, because it forced employees to either quit - or cut ethical corners in order to meet their numbers. I also remember the piece concluded that the real ethical violation was that of the management who set the goals in the first place, without taking responsibility for the consequences that inevitably follow.

I've never forgotten that. It's a handy rule of thumb, and I've actually used that story to argue with managers about their decisions. (Sometimes it even worked.)

What happened at the Massey mine in West Virginia is a textbook example of that kind of warped managerial thinking. (Although they made noises about it after the mine explosion, the board of Massey Energy still has no problem with Don Blankenship.) The NY Times today takes a look at two non-union mines (I suppose to prove that you can be non-union, yet still observe safety standards). It's a good read, and I recommend that you check out the rest. But this is the part that made my heart ache for those men:

Like so many other workers across the country, the day-shift miners at Upper Big Branch had an early-morning commute. Every workday, a dozen or so piled into a covered vehicle called a mantrip and caught a half-hour doze as the car followed a track three to four miles into the side of a central Appalachian mountain.

The car would come to a stop in a world where the ceiling was less than seven feet high, the floor puddled with water, and the air cool, breezy and faintly musty. As loud fans helped to move the air, the mining machine would grind back and forth about 1,000 feet across the wall, slicing coal to be carried away by conveyor belt.

Down there, fresh air could not be taken for granted.

Well before this month’s fatal explosion at Upper Big Branch, the country’s worst mine disaster in 40 years, the lack of proper ventilation had been a continuing concern among its miners. The fear of methane building while oxygen dropped preyed on their minds.

“I have had guys come to me and cry,” said the veteran foreman. “Grown men cried — because they are scared.”

But workers in the mine said they did not dare question the company’s safety practices, even when asked to perform a dubious task.

“It was all about production,” said Andrew Tyler, 22, an electrician who two years ago worked as a subcontractor on the wiring for the coal conveyer belt and other equipment at Upper Big Branch. “If you worked for them, you didn’t ask questions about whether some step like running a cable around the breaker was a smart idea. You just did it.”

The foreman said that everyone agreed that an obvious culprit for some of the compromised air was what they called the “glory hole,” an old mining term for the chimneylike storage shaft deep within the mountain, a few hundred feet long and about 20 feet wide, that connected Upper Big Branch to a few mines above.

In years past, coal from these upper mines was dumped down the shaft to Upper Big Branch, then taken out by conveyor belt. But after the shaft stopped being used, the foreman said, a proper seal between floors was never installed.

“They just dumped trash in there,” he said. “Any kind of trash they could get, buckets, you name it.”

The foreman said that methane was being sucked down through the shaft into the active mine, to the point that methane readings in the area often measured at twice the allowable level.

About two months ago, he said, a young, fit contractor climbed a ladder on the outside of the coal shaft to retrieve a monitor. A few steps up, though, the man passed out — apparently from the high methane levels — and had to be dragged to safety. The incident was kept quiet, the foreman said, and never reported to state and federal regulators.

All over America, now more than ever, people are going to work to support their families, thankful that they still have a job and worried about losing it. I guarantee you that thousands of unethical managers and owners across this country are taking advantage of this recession by cutting safety corners and employing fewer people than is safe.

Like that oil rig that just burned. I'm guessing it wasn't a bolt of lightning that caused that disaster. I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts it's about what's destroying this country: plain old greed.

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